Alcoholics Caught Drinking Hand Sanitizer

By Dirk Hanson 06/21/11

“It surprised us that he drank this stuff,” said an internist. “You’d think it would taste pretty bad.”

External use only.
Photo via randoml

We shouldn’t have to say, “don’t drink the hand sanitizer,” but a recent report from Australia has us reeling. To be honest, it’s not the sort of thing that we ever thought of pointing out, but if you’re thinking of drinking from that dispenser of hand sanitizer on the wall by the sink, just don’t do it. Even if you’ve already twigged to the fact that some of the brands contain mostly alcohol, bear in mind that hand sanitizer comes in two flavors, one of which contains isopropyl alcohol—quite different from ethyl alcohol, a.k.a ethanol, the kind that you drink. Isopropyl alcohol is commonly used as a solvent and as a cleaning fluid, and is also encountered in the formulation known as rubbing alcohol. Kitty Dukakis tried drinking rubbing alcohol once. It is not a cocktail, and it can kill you if you manage to put down enough of it.

And in Australia recently, somebody tried. Doctors at a Melbourne hospital went into emergency mode after a patient laid hands on six bottles of Aqium Gel hand sanitizer and put away about a half-gallon of the stuff. With a blood alcohol level at five times the legal limit, the 45-year old man, who had a history of substance abuse, and who had been admitted for alcohol-related gastritis, was lucky—his hand sanitizer of choice contained ethyl alcohol. Still, “it surprised us that he drank this stuff,” an internist at the hospital told AP. “It’s horrendous. You’d think it would taste pretty bad.”

A 43-year old alcoholic in Cincinnati was not so lucky awhile back, after he was admitted to a hospital with chest pains, treated, discharged, and immediately readmitted when he became sick and delirious. This time, “the patient was seen in the bathroom drinking the alcohol-based hand wash from its dispenser,” according to a case study cited in the New England Journal of Medicine. “When asked why he ingested the hand cleaner, he pointed to the label, which read ‘Active ingredient 63% v/v isopropyl alcohol.’ He explained that this percentage is higher than that in vodka.”

We’ve also seen sporadic reports of teens drinking hand cleaner. That’s just sick and wrong, crew.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]